14 for 14: My Best Books of the Year


2014 digital numbers

I do three different “best of the year” lists in different contexts. This is my personal list, but…I also do a Best Ebook Romances of the year for Library Journal, and I’m one of the judges for the SFR Galaxy Awards, which is effectively a best SFR of the year list.

So there are repeats. After all, if it was one of the best in one context, there’s an awfully good chance it will be one of the best in another if applicable. Even so, when I looked at my A+, A and A- reviews for the year, I had too many choices.

That being said, I have wondered whether I could (or should) keep going with the theme of “besting” the same number of books as the year. So far, it is working all too well.

bollywood affair by sonali devIn the romance category, I have three that stood out from the other terrific books I read this year. A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev was an absolute standout. (It’s also on my LJ list). Dev’s book is a slow burning romance and an introduction or exploration into Indian-American and Indian culture. Her heroine is a good girl with a little bit of defiance, and her hero is a bad boy who discovers how much fun it can be to be good.

Jeffe Kennedy’s Mark of the Tala is a great fantasy romance and the first book in her Twelve Kingdoms series. In this one, what I loved was the number of different ways that the road to hell gets paved. Her hero and heroine want to do the right thing for both their peoples, and are lucky enough to fall in love in the process. But this is a story about the fight for the soul of two kingdoms, and a lot of men do evil in the name of either good or power. This one goes surprisingly well, if sadly, with Maleficent.

Robin York, better known as Ruthie Knox, told one of the best New Adult stories I have read so far in the genre in Deeper and Harder, the story of Caroline and West. These are real people facing real problems, including a “wrong side of the tracks” type of love story. They overcome a lot of obstacles, with a lot of love, but also quite a bit of heart-rending pain.

No Place to Hide by Glenn GreenwaldI read a bit more nonfiction than usual this year, and two titles have stuck in my head long after I finished. Partially for the topics they cover, and also significantly for the marvelous writing style. No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald reads like a spy thriller, but it is a cautionary tale about the case of Edward Snowden, the NSA papers he released, and the subsequent persecution of the reporter who covered the story. It will make you look at everything you read that purports to be true with a much more critical eye.

Forcing the Spring by Jo Becker reads like a legal thriller, but it tells the story of the fight for marriage equality using the lens of the case against Prop 8 in California. Becker was embedded with the legal team during the five years that this case wound its way to the Supreme Court, and her “you are there” style of reporting will keep you on the edge of your seat.

ryder by nick pengelleyTwo books don’t fit into categories at all well. Ryder by Nick Pengelley is action/adventure, with a heroine who is a combination of Indiana Jones, Lara Croft and Robert Langdon from The DaVinci Code. Ayesha Ryder kicks ass, takes names and discovers secrets that weren’t meant to be revealed in a delightful thriller.

The Bees by Laline Paull feels like a bit of an allegory – it is social commentary about human behavior disguised as bee behavior. But it is also a story about listening to your own inner voice and absolutely NOT blooming where you are planted. You will find yourself rooting for the bee, and laughing at some of her observations that hit close to home about both bees and us.

The urban fantasy series Mindspace Investigations by Alex Hughes continues to wrap me in its web. This year’s entries in the series are Marked and Vacant, and the one word titles represent something in the life of the series protagonist, Adam Ward. Adam is a recovering drug addict, a police consultant, and a telepath. He’s also in love with his equally damaged but otherwise normal police partner. The layers created in this post-apocalyptic but still mostly functioning version of suburban Atlanta are fascinating. It is just close enough to now to recognize what is still going right, and what went wrong.

queen of the tearling by erika johansenIn epic fantasy, my favorite this year was The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen. This is in the classic mold of the hero who is raised in obscurity to become the ruler, but the hero is a heroine. This one has the feeling of the King Arthur story, but with a Queen instead. So Queen Kelsea is a fish very much out of water who has to learn fast to save her kingdom. Unlike so many retellings of the Arthur story, Kelsea operates in shades of grey; good choices can have every bit as costly an outcome as bad choices, sometimes more costly. She is learning by the seat of her pants while attempting to preserve her kingdom and fighting with everyone on all sides. A marvelous coming-of-age epic fantasy on a grand scale.

But this year, so many of my memorable reads were in my first love, science fiction.

Two books that I am not going to say a lot about because it’s all been said. These were bestsellers and were covered everywhere.

ancillary sword by ann leckieJohn Scalzi’s Lock In is a murder mystery wrapped in a near-future science fiction setting that, as is usual for Scalzi, has as much to say about our current society as it does about the future in which the book is set. This one works on multiple levels, and has a surprising twist that will tell you a bit about yourself as well. Great fun and an awesome read.

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie is a worthy sequel to the “sweeping all the awards winner” Ancillary Justice. This series is fantastic space opera with a unique point-of-view character from a galaxy-spanning empire with a fascinating culture and a very different way of managing its far-flung holdings. Whatever you might have heard about how good this series is – it’s even better than that.

damnation by jean johnsonJean Johnson’s Theirs Not to Reason Why series concluded this year with two books, Hardship and Damnation. Johnson’s series, like Leckie’s, is epic space opera, but Johnson is firmly in the military SF camp with this series. Her heroine rises through the ranks of the Space Force as the story is told, while she fights an interstellar war, first as a grunt, but eventually as Commander of the Armies. The thing that makes this series unique is that her heroine, Ia, is a precognitive who knows what has to happen, but still has to move heaven, earth, the central command, and everyone she ever meets into the right place at the right time to save the universe in a future that she will never live to see. Awesome from beginning to end.

Soulminder by Timothy Zahn was a complete surprise. Zahn is probably best known for his Star Wars fiction, but this is something completely different. As with Scalzi’s Lock In, Soulminder is SF of the laboratory type, where it is a scientific discovery that fuels the story arc. Also as with Lock In, there is a definitely plot thread about the way that humans will take something potentially good and pave the road to hell with it. (Soulminder was published before Lock In, so any resemblance is unintentional). For hard science SF, Soulminder has a surprising amount of story concerned with keeping one’s soul. It is a tale that embodies the principle “for evil to flourish, it is only necessary that good men do nothing.” It’s also about what happens when those good men stop doing nothing.

forever watch by david ramirezLast but not least, The Forever Watch by David Ramirez. If you threw Gorky Park, Blade Runner, one of Robin Cook’s medical thrillers and Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang into a blender, along with spice from The Matrix and Madeline Ashby’s Suited, you might come up with a story that has some resemblance to The Forever Watch, but it wouldn’t be nearly as good. The Forever Watch is epic SF of the generation ship type, and it was one of those books that I shoved at people because I was so captivated. And it has one of those ending plot-twists that makes you re-think the entire story.

And that’s my top 14 for the year. 2014 was a wild ride, and I can’t wait to see what 2015 has in store! What were your favorites of 2014? Do share! We all need more awesome books to read!

Review: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

ancillary sword by ann leckieFormat read: ebook borrowed from the library
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genre: science fiction
Series: Imperial Radch #2
Length: 359 pages
Publisher: Orbit
Date Released: October 7, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

What if you once had thousands of bodies and near god-like technology at your disposal?

And what if all of it were ripped away?

The Lord of the Radch has given Breq command of the ship Mercy of Kalr and sent her to the only place she would have agreed to go — to Athoek Station, where Lieutenant Awn’s sister works in Horticulture.

Athoek was annexed some six hundred years ago, and by now everyone is fully civilized — or should be. But everything is not as tranquil as it appears. Old divisions are still troublesome, Athoek Station’s AI is unhappy with the situation, and it looks like the alien Presger might have taken an interest in what’s going on. With no guarantees that interest is benevolent.

My Review:

ancillary justice by ann leckieIf you love SF and particularly space opera, or even if you just remember it fondly, you absolutely have to read the first book in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, Ancillary Justice (reviewed pretty damn enthusiastically here). Go forth now and read. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Ancillary Justice won all the SF awards this year, and there’s a reason – it’s absolutely marvelous. All the great things everyone has said are all true.

Ancillary Sword is the followup, and it was worth the wait. I’m now desperately hoping for a third, because Breq’s journey is clearly not done. The Imperial Radch, and the Leader of the Radch still very much need Breq’s help. Even if, or especially because, Anaander Mianaai’s right hand is plotting a coup against its left hand.

Breq is the only person that the Leader seems to even semi-trust. (When you are literally at war with parts of yourself, full-trust of anyone is out of the question. If you can’t trust yourself, who can you trust?)

Why the trust? Because Anaander Mianaai is a many-cloned being who can be in multiple places at the same time because all the clones carry her consciousness. It’s just that the empire has gotten so huge that instantaneous communication is no longer possible. Lack of coordination breeds confusion and civil war. The clones have different agendas, or at least different visions of the future of the Radch.

Breq knows what it is like to be one among many of yourself; she used to be a ship, Justice of Toren. In the 20 years since one part of the Leader of the Radch ordered her to kill the officer that she cared for, Breq has been concealing her identity and searching for a way to get the Leader’s attention.

Now she’s got it, and not necessarily in a way that she wants. What she can’t get is either her beloved Lieutenant Awn back or her place as one of many ancillaries on a ship. Breq is now singular, alone in her own head, and she has to find a way to be, if not human, at least an independent person with only one body and one perspective.

She is also aware that one of the Anaander factions may have decided that the best way to continue the Radch is to enslave or kill a lot of the people in it. For various definitions of enslave, kill and even people.

Breq has one ship, one crew and one mission; to preserve Athoek Station, its jump gate, and the population that live on the station and the breadbasket planet below.

But Breq’s method of preserving the planet will upset all the powers-that-be not only on Athoek, but all the way back to the heart of the empire. When both sides are serving the empire, how do you decide who the traitors are?

Escape Rating A: One of the fascinating things in Ancillary Justice is Breq’s identity. She doesn’t see herself as having gender (ships, after all, don’t) and the Radch uses a genderless noun, Citizen, for all its people. Breq refers to everyone as “she”. It does rather turn convention on its head.

Breq has a female body, but that isn’t what affects her perspective. She is much more aware of not being an ancillary any more, and not being one of the many limbs of a ship. She misses it, and she misses being part of the whole. But her consciousness of the difference, and her awareness that ancillaries are enslaved people who have been stripped of their identity informs her actions; as does her awareness of the preciousness of life. At the same time, she still has the perspective of the efficiency of the machine; she is always looking for the best way to get the job done, and she doesn’t care who she upsets in the process. She doesn’t care, in the human sense, about very many people. While her ability to empathize is often lacking, she often finds the compassionate solution simply because she doesn’t care what people think.

There is a lot of very human skullduggery in this story that Breq has to figure out and eliminate. The civil war in the Radch is upsetting the status quo, and there are a lot of people on Athoek who are extremely invested in the status quo. Including many officers who believe that their actions serve the Radch, and who may or may not be right.

The overall story is of Breq learning to be human. Or at least to be an individual. She knows all the right things to do, and sometimes she manages to do them. What is interesting is watching her adjust through her pain at being separate, while acknowledging that it is the right thing to do. On the other hand, what she doesn’t see is that the pain and working through it makes her more human.

While the particular problems in Ancillary Sword do get wrapped up, the ending makes it very clear that there will be more to Breq’s story (thank goodness). I’ve seen a reference to the title as AM, so my bets are on Ancillary Mercy, as Mercy of Kalr is Breq’s ship. Or rather, the ship that she is captain of. Her original ship was Justice of Toren (hence Ancillary Justice) and the ship who gives her the most trouble in this book is Sword of Atagaris (therefore Ancillary Sword). Whatever the title of book 3 in the Imperial Radch saga, I can’t wait.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

ancillary justice by ann leckieFormat read: ebook provided by NetGalley
Formats available: ebook, paperback, audiobook
Genre: science fiction
Series: Imperial Radch, #1
Length: 410 pages
Publisher: Orbit
Date Released: October 1, 2013
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.

Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was the Justice of Toren–a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.

An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body. And only one purpose–to revenge herself on Anaander Mianaai, many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.

My Review:

Part of the fascination with Ancillary Justice is the hidden nature (or natures) of the first-person protagonist.

As the story progresses, we see how Breq got to be who and where she is, and why. But it’s all told from her multiple first-person perspectives, and the past flows into the present.

Time is not the only thing that’s fluid. We don’t discover whether Breq is male or female until the end. And it doesn’t really matter to the story, except that it’s unknown. Breq doesn’t seem to care, and it doesn’t affect how people treat her. She’s too busy worrying about whether or not she is faking being human well enough to give a thought to her gender or lack thereof.

Breq used to be a ship. She also used to be a person. She considers herself the last remaining ancillary of the ship Justice of Toren, and not an individual. Or a citizen. Or a lot of other things.

The fascinating thing about Breq is that the whole rationale behind her journey proves that she is an individual after all. She, and she alone, makes changes in the universe, because she is on a question to avenge a friend.

She just needs to take down an immortal emperor to do so.

The story feels like Breq’s quest for personhood. Somewhat the way that Data always wanted to be more human. The difference is that Breq used to be human, over 2,000 years ago, before she became an ancillary. She doesn’t seem to care who she was before, and she misses having all the other parts of herself that she had when she was Justice of Toren.

She’s on a quest, and that’s the only thing that matters to her. Also saving the galaxy, or at least the imperium.

The story gets bigger and bigger as it goes, even as Breq’s perspective narrows from the all-seeing ship to the one-seeing Breq. The irony is that as Breq comes to accept and even rely on her single-point of view, the multi-bodied emperor is fighting a civil war with herself. Unfortunately, the emperor’s divided mind is housed in multiple bodies, all of which are gathering adherents, and soldiers.

Breq’s quest to get the emperor’s undivided attention is bigger, badder and more convoluted than it seems. But incredibly awesome.

Escape Rating A: Now I understand what all the fuss is about. Ancillary Justice has been nominated for just about every SF award possible this year (it won the Nebula) and it’s definitely justified.

Breq’s story is part of the slow reveal of the plot, the characters, the universe and everything past and present. She always sees herself as an outsider, but she doesn’t always see herself. She’s so used to being one of many that she doesn’t quite accept herself as one of one.

There is a lot of fluidity to the way this story is presented. Not just that Breq doesn’t present herself as gendered, but that she has difficulty determining which gender others belong to. Her own language doesn’t have gendered pronouns, everyone is a citizen, or not. I found that some characters that Breq presents as “she” other characters name as “he”. Breq seems to see everyone as like herself, or thinks that female is the dominant gender, or just can’t see how it matters except as yet another way to make a mistake in address or behavior.

I will also say that reading this book gave me a terrible book hangover. The story wasn’t done, I wasn’t done, and I just couldn’t make myself leave. I ended up finally reading Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach, because I wanted to stay in an SF-nal universe, even if I couldn’t go back to Imperial Radch just yet.

ancillary sword by ann leckieBut I will. The next book in the trilogy, Ancillary Sword, is due this October.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.